Europe to discuss freezing Egyptian assets

Britain's foreign secretary said Monday the European Union will discuss a request from Egypt's military rulers to freeze assets held by members of ex-President Hosni Mubarak's ousted regime.

William Hague told the House of Commons that Egypt's new leaders had requested that the U.K. and others take action against several ex-officials, but did not specify whether they included Mubarak himself.

Hague said EU finance ministers would discuss the request later Monday and on Tuesday during talks in Brussels.

"If there is any evidence of illegality or misuse of state assets we will take firm and prompt action," Hague said.

To impose an asset freeze on an outgoing leader, the EU needs the backing of all 27 member states and usually coordinates its actions with the incoming government.

Last week, the bloc announced a freeze on the assets of 48 ex-Tunisian officials, including former president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali and his wife.

A European Union official said the national delegations of EU states in Egypt had been contacted by the new government, requesting the bloc freeze the assets of members of the regime.

He said the EU's Political and Security Committee, a permanent body that helps steer the bloc's foreign policy and comprises diplomats from all member states, would discuss an asset freeze Tuesday. The ultimate decision would have to be taken by EU foreign ministers, who are scheduled to meet next Monday.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the early stage of the discussions.

French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said Monday that the finance ministers will also discuss financial support for Tunisia and Egypt,

"We will discuss how to support the democratic movement in these countries," Lagarde said after a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Brussels.

Hague, who last week carried out a three-day, five country tour of the Middle East and northern Africa — but did not visit Egypt — said he spoke Sunday with Egypt's Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and encouraged Egypt's military government to further accommodate the views of opposition figures.

The foreign secretary said he had been pleased to learn that members of Egypt's opposition would be included in a cabinet reshuffle during the next week — a move that could partially address protesters' demands for a technocratic government unseating members of the former regime.

Hague also told British lawmakers he had called on Egypt's government to quickly set out a timetable for parliamentary and presidential elections.

"It is in our national interest as well as theirs for them to make a successful transition to a broad-based government and an open and democratic society," Hague said.

He said he also urged the immediate release of protesters, journalists and human rights campaigners detained during protests which led to Mubarak's ouster.

"In Egypt, as in Tunisia, there is now a precious moment of opportunity for the people of Egypt to achieve a stable and democratic future," Hague said.

Hague also expressed his concern that unrest in the Middle East could further stall progress of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He said both sides must show "the visionary boldness to return to talks and make genuine compromises."

He also warned that political upheaval in the region should not distract world powers from the task of curbing Iran's ambition to develop nuclear weapons.

Britain and allies are discussing "steps to increase the legitimate peaceful pressure" on Tehran to comply with U.N. demands to open up its secretive nuclear program, he said.


AP writers Gabriele Steinhauser and Greg Keller in Brussels, contributed to this report.